February, 1979

I watch the boy from the corner of my eye as his father signs the paperwork. He’s a cute kid but a worrier; I can tell by the way he’s sucking on his bottom lip. I cross my eyes at him, something to make him smile, but he just stares at me like I dropped out of the fucking sky. I don’t know how I’m going to convince him to breathe through a regulator, but maybe that’s not up to me, you know? Because the way his dad’s scrawling his name across every page without bothering to read anything makes me think we’re on a mission here. Maybe the kid will just do what his father tells him. I kind of hope that’s the case. Maria’s been after me about getting home on time.

The father signs the last page in the packet I gave him, then slaps the pen on the counter. All set? I ask, and he turns to his kid without answering me. I’ve seen his type before, I haven’t been working at this shop for fifteen years for nothing. I have a college education. But this guy, he doesn’t give a shit. To him I’m just an esclavo, someone to cater to his whims. Time to suit up, he’s saying to the kid, and the boy looks at him with wild eyes. He’s scared shitless, and I want to tell him that all he has to do is relax but his father frowns when I take a step in their direction. So I busy myself with the tanks, taking a quick glance at my watch. We’re getting a later start than I’d like; I’m really not supposed to head out after four o’clock, especially with a kid in tow.

Through the open windows of the shop I can hear the murmur of the ocean, a sound so sweet and constant that the few times I’ve left the Yucatan coast over the past twenty years the silence nearly crippled me. Sun beams across the water; I never tire of this view. I didn’t take my first dive until I was nearly twenty but since then I’ve logged enough hours to satisfy more than a dozen lifetimes. I’ve certified hundreds of divers and introduced more virgins to the sport than I could begin to count. I was born and raised in Ohio but I know this water like I know my own breath.

We’re going to have to take a trial dive in the pool before I can let this kid out there, and the day’s not getting any younger. Behind me the guy’s still talking, and though his kid hasn’t said a word I can see the impatience in the guy’s expression when I turn around. What does he want? It’s not like the kid’s kicking and screaming and refusing to go. He’s just scared. Even I can see that and I’m not a father yet, not for another six weeks. Maria’s due in April; I don’t see how that woman can get any bigger. She’s all belly and ass, though when she asks I tell her she looks beautiful. I’m not lying; to me she does. To me she’s a queen, a goddess, Ixchel herself. How else can we explain this baby, a fluke after almost thirty years of failure and resignation? Estoy muy bieja para esto, she said last night, I’m too old for this. But she spoke the words as if in a dream, tracing her belly with the tips of her fingers. Moonlight spilled from the sky and pooled across her skin, and I watched from the doorway, humbled in her presence. I’m fifty-two and Maria’s not far behind, but last night I wanted her the way I did when I was nineteen.

The guy’s finally ready and he strides past me in the direction of the pool; I’m not surprised he hasn’t offered to help with the tanks. What’s your name again? I ask the kid after I’ve lugged them out there myself. He sucks his bottom lip between his teeth, like he can’t decide whether or not to trust me with the information. Tell him your name, his father snaps, and the kid whispers something so faint I end up squatting down beside him, which is maybe better because now we’re on the same level. Joe? I say. Joel, he corrects me in a hush. Joel, I say, sliding into my BCD, You like to swim? He gives me the barest of nods and I show him my regulator. With this, I say, You can swim underwater, just like a fish. We’ve been through the logistics, the kid’s father informs me, but this time I don’t bother looking in his direction. Instead I just hold the regulator to my mouth. Nice and easy, I say, Okay?

He’s wearing a wetsuit, top of the line, and a kid-sized BCD, too, and he looks like a little professional. He still has an expression of pure terror, though, and without his father’s help I coax him over to the shallow end of the pool and help him down a couple of steps, then adjust the bladder on his BCD. His father has his own mask positioned carefully around his eyes, his regulator already in his mouth. What a jackass.

Let’s give it a try, I say, pointing to the boy’s regulator. He takes it between fingers covered with magic marker, or maybe paint. Nice and easy, I remind him, and he takes a breath, his eyes widening as the oxygen hits his lungs. I nod my approval, then guide him down another step and gently pull his mask over his eyes. Nice and easy, I say, and then we’re in the water.

Sunlight shifts beneath the surface. My breath comes long and deep, its sound a stabilizing force; never am I more aware of the presence of my breath than when I’m underwater. For just a second I wonder if this is what my baby hears adentro de la pansa de mi madre. Inside his mother’s belly. Then I look at the boy across from me, ready to react if he’s starting to panic. But he’s mesmerized. He’s fucking hooked, and I watch the corners of his mouth curl upward around his regulator, then catch his father’s eye. Together we breathe.

Copyright © 2010 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

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